Chief executive unable to fulfil university chancellor duties

Amid ongoing protests and tense relations between pro-democracy students and a Hong Kong government widely viewed as intransigent, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam is unable to carry out many of her ceremonial duties as the official chancellor of the city’s eight publicly-funded universities.

Influential staff and alumni groups have been calling for her to step down as chancellor for her role in sparking the unrest, now into its fifth month.

Lam’s office and the universities confirmed she was not planning to attend any graduation ceremonies – one of her key ceremonial duties as chancellor – scheduled at the eight universities between now and early December.

The university role of the chief executive dates back to the British colonial era when the British governor of Hong Kong also held the title of chancellor of the colony’s public universities.

University sources said the government feared ‘embarrassing incidents’ and disruption during the formal ceremonies. Lam has refused to meet with students during the ongoing protests and is now only rarely seen in public. But heated confrontations between students and university vice-chancellors have occurred during recent ‘town hall’ style events on campuses.

The risks were highlighted this week by an incident at the degree-granting ceremony for doctoral students at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPolyU) when university Vice-Chancellor Teng Jin-Guang refused to shake hands with two doctoral graduates who wore masks on stage during the ceremony.

Student organisations called on graduating students to wear masks during official ceremonies as a symbol of the protests. At HKPolyU the student union said it was planning to distribute masks at other scheduled graduation ceremonies.

Administrative staff had earlier told graduates not to wear masks at the ceremony out of respect for the occasion. A university spokesperson said while the university supports the rights of individuals to express their views, “the graduation ceremony is a solemn and grand occasion. The university expects the graduate candidates to respect the occasion and observe the protocol of the ceremony.”

A controversial government ban on facemasks worn during protests has been in force since 4 October, but it does not apply on university campuses.

Despite the ban many have worn masks in the streets in defiance of the colonial-era law invoked by Lam in a bid to quell unrest. Dozens have been arrested under the mask-ban law.

Chancellor role questioned

Chancellors do not attend all the ceremonies they are invited to. Lam previously attended an honorary degree awarding ceremony at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in April – before the current protests which began in June.

But with Lam highly unpopular, students and alumni have questioned the role of the chief executive as chancellor. On 19 October HKU alumni and staff passed a resolution calling on Lam to resign as chancellor, saying she has caused “unforgivable havoc” in Hong Kong – a reference to Lam’s own words.

The HKU convocation, which represents alumni – many of them among Hong Kong’s most eminent citizens, including lawyers, civil servants and a newspaper editor – as well as teaching staff, but not current students, passed the motion by a huge majority at their extraordinary general meeting for Lam to be held responsible for the political crisis in Hong Kong.

The almost continuous protests were sparked by a bill tabled in June to allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. The bill was withdrawn this month, but the protests continue as broader anti-government protests, particularly in anger against a brutal police response.

Opposition to the chief executive’s role as chancellor has increased in recent years, particularly under the previous Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who was perceived as interfering in HKU’s governance, appointing pro-Beijing figures to the governing council in the face of opposition from the convocation.

Although the role is mainly ceremonial, at HKU the chancellor has the power to appoint seven members of HKU’s 24-member governing council, including its chairman.

In September 2015 in the wake of the Occupy Central movement, also known as the Umbrella Movement – protests that gripped Hong Kong in 2014 and early 2015 – the HKU convocation voted to remove Leung as the university’s chancellor, ostensibly because of allegations that Leung used his role as chancellor to halt the appointment of the university’s former law dean Johannes Chan as HKU pro-vice-chancellor.

Chan had been criticised by pro-Beijing groups, in part because of his links to HKU co-founder of the Occupy Central movement Benny Tai, who was jailed for his role.

But after a special panel on university governance, including the chancellor’s role, was set up in 2017, the HKU council reported that the legislative and university process required to change the law requiring the sitting chief executive to be chancellor of Hong Kong’s publicly-funded universities could lead to an “uncertain, long and protracted process”.

Leung, who was chief executive until 2017, was criticised by Ip Kin-yuen, a Hong Kong legislator representing the education sector, for not attending any congregation ceremonies as chancellor even after the Umbrella Movement protests had ended. A number of ceremonies saw minor disruptions by students that year.

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.